Sunday, February 24, 2008

Public education is in peril

originally posted at Dailykos on February 23

Diane Ravitch is a notable figure in American public education, as a policy maker having served as an Assistant Secretary under the first President Bush, aand as an historian who has been perhaps the most notable among those produced by her mentor the late Lawrence Cremins. She is inevitably the target of criticism, with many on the educational left critical of her role in what they view as a more conservative approach to public education. Recently Ravitch has become increasingly critical of many of the things dear to educational conservatives, from No Child Behind to the tendency of mayors to direct control of urban school districts, especially the effort ongoing in New York under Mayor Bloomberg. It is in that light that I wish to draw your attention to a piece in School Board News, a publication of the National School Board Association, which is entitled Public education is in ‘peril,’ Ravitch warns. It is a writeup of remarks Ravitch, now a professor at NYU's Steinhardt School of Education, made at NSBA's February 1 Leadership Congress.

Please keep reading.

I will offer some selections from the piece and a few remarks of my own. And I disclose right now that I am a friendly acquaintance of Diane Ravitch of half a decade, although we have had our disagreements on educational policy matters in the past.

Ravitch believes the real crisis in education today has to do with a classroom environment, that, due to the influence of No Child Left Behind, emphasizes the subjects tested, while neglecting “creativity, originality, and disciplined thinking.”
That is not the first paragraph of the article, but it is perhaps as important as any, especially at a time when reauthorization of NCLB is still on the table before the Congress, and the Bush Administration is going all out to sustain what it considers its major achievement in domestic policy.

But we need to understand the historical context of the crisis, and as one trained as an historian of education Ravitch provides that context. She notes that in the 1950's there was extensive criticism of public education (does anyone here remember the piece in the Saturday Evening Post entitled Why Johnny Can't Read?) but
reformers “did not challenge the very existence of public education.” That’s no longer the case, Ravitch said at NSBA’s Leadership Conference Feb. 1 in Washington, D.C.

Today, critics say “public education itself is obsolete,” she said. “There is a large and growing movement to dismantle public education.”
It is for this reason that Ravitch warned the school board leaders that
"public education, as we have known it all our lives, is in genuine peril"
While describing the poor performance of US students on international assessments as a long-term problem and not an immediate crisis, Ravitch told the conference that
schools can’t be blamed for a culture that honors athletes and entertainers but not those who choose careers in science, education, or public service.

Ravitch is critical of the mindset that wants
to replace public education with a “completely choice-based system of vouchers, privatization, and charter schools,” under the assumption that “in an open market, good schools would thrive and bad school would die,” she said. But this is a “ludicrous model to apply to public education, which is a public service, not a private good.”
Some argue strongly
want to turn schools into business organizations, with schools managed by people with no experience in education and whose only focus is the “bottom line” -- with the bottom line being test scores.

But when you pay teachers and students for higher test scores, this is the only thing that will matter to them, Ravitch said, and they will spend all their energies on test prep.

I have written before on the problem described in that last brief paragraph, and again call your attention to the book by Sharon Nichols and David Berliner entitled Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America's Schools, which demonstrates the accuracy of what those in social science research know as Campbell's Law:
"The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decisionmaking, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."
I am delighted to see the emphasis Ravitch places upon this point.

Ravitch was critical of those like Marc Tucker who argue that the management of schools should be turned over to private organizations, noting the lack of evidence that private or charter schools are better managed.
And schools are not a business, she said. “They are not churning out products, but shaping lives and character.”

Ravitch is specifically critical of the approach underway in New York City where she lives, and she has had a number of clashes with Maylor Bllomberg and Chancellor Klein, about which I have also previously written.

The end of the brief article contains much of importance. As might be expected given the audience, she is strongly in favor of the role of school boards (something that mayors like Daley in Chicago, Bloomberg in New York, and Fenty in Washington have sought to bypass with direct mayoral control). Without school boards,
“there is no democratic participation in education,” Ravitch said. “There is no place where parents and other members of the public can stand up and ask questions and get answers. Decisions are made behind closed doors” and “there are no checks or balances on executive authority.”
She warns that of the dangers of the market approach to schooling, which will favor the haves over the have nots - that is where the money is.

The final paragraph reads as follows:
“The purpose of public education is to level the playing field. We cannot let the key fundamental principle of public education -- equality of educational opportunity -- die,” she said. “We cannot kill a system that has flaws and needs improvement and replace it with something that will almost certainly be even more flawed and more inequitable.”
As one who has opposed NCLB since it was first proposed because I understood that it would lead to an inequity of educational opportunity even worse than the system it purported to fix, I am delighted to see the powerful voice of Diane Ravitch making this point.

There is a brief, previous paragraph that provides the framing on which I have based much of my own efforts on the policy of public education:
For Ravitch, “The survival of public education in our nation is intimately tied up with the survival of our democracy.”
That is why I by choice teach in public schools. That is why I write about public schools. That is why I advocate for fixing, not replacing, public schools.

I strongly suggest you take the link for this article and distribute it widely, starting with the members of your local and state school boards. Remember, her remarks were made to an association of school boards. And the ASBA encourages the distribution of the piece. Let me quote:
Reproduced with permission from School Board News. Copyright © 2008, National School Boards Association. Opinions expressed in this newspaper do not necessarily reflect positions of NSBA. This article may be printed out and photocopied for individual or educational use, provided this copyright notice appears on each copy. This article may not be otherwise transmitted or reproduced in print or electronic form without the consent of the Publisher. For more information, call (703) 838-6789.

So go to it. Distribute it. Join me in insuring that our efforts at edcational reform not undermine our commitment to public schooling. And let me repeat that key line from Diane:

“The survival of public education in our nation is intimately tied up with the survival of our democracy.”



teacherken said...

I am crossposting this because I have been somewhat lax in posting in recent months. I do periodically in y logging efforts write things that are relevant here, and if there are no objections I will on occasion crosspost here, as I have just done.


Barbara Stengel said...

I'm delighted that Ken has taken the time to highlight Ravitch's current positions. I don't know Diane personally though I've met her through friends as well as in a few professional interactions. She has always struck me in person and in writing as someone who says what she thinks (and she does think!) and welcomes you to do the same. So while I haven't always agreed with her positions, I have never had any reason to do anything but respect her work. And that's still true.

I've been loosely following Ravitch's shared blog with Debbie Meier ("Bridging Differences" It's great to see two intelligent, sensible educators acknowledging freely where they agree and where they disagree. As Ken's post points out, there is something quite sense-less about the current attack on public schools. It does not surprise me that Ravitch would say so, but it's worth repeating because she is a respected figure with "conservative credentials."

Aaron Schutz said...

One thing to add to this. The existence of school boards says little about real "democratic" participation. What matters are more pragmatic issues about how communities, widely defined, can affect what happens in their schools. School board members elected every few years do not usually real democratic participation make.

In fact, it may sometimes be true that having a single person (a mayor) in charge of the schools can make democratic engagement more possible. It is often easier to "target" a single visible person than a whole board of less visible people.

In any case, once you elect someone they immediately end up being battered by a range of pressures, few of which usually have to do with the community.

Furthermore, the bureaucracy of city schooling, especially, is pretty hard to affect. The fact that one is a school board member may not give one as much influence as you may think.

Real democratic participation comes when communities develop structures that allow them to put collective pressure at the key decision points in a district.

Finally, remember that schools in poor areas have few resources. You can be as democratic you like about food distribution in a room with no food. Everyone will still starve.